Thursday, August 5 2010, 05:43 pm
Thirty Ways a Software Grows
The following recount is rather generic in nature so I do not have to worry about stepping on any toes, but it is all true.
Everyone has a workplace story to tell and I've finally gotten around to writing about my own. I have had a rare opportunity to write and maintain software for a company that has plenty of history. The company I, still, work for has been around almost as long as Microsoft to give you a point of reference.
In The Beginning In traditional fashion of the time, which still holds true today, the company started by buying the rights to a software that someone else wrote. The country of origin: Canada. I do not know much about the company or who were the original authors besides a few names I've seen in copyrights, so unfortunately I do not have any juicy stories to tell about them. They wrote to Minix, which surprisingly still exists today. The data was stored in ISAM databases (Google it), which unfortunately still exists today. The program displayed via a terminal-based text screen with support for input fields and displaying different types of screen layouts, which, also unfortunately, still exists today. The only saving grace was that it was written in the C language.
Abraham Lincoln The company originated in a log cabin, now turned historical landmark. I heard the winters were cold, and the summers were hot. The size of the cabin is about the size of a traditional living room with two whole stories. There was also the shift from Minix to UNIX and DOS operating systems to keep up with growing demand.
Enterprise Split Eventually the software became outdated, in a sense, for the customer base the company wished to sell to. Enterprises wanted a more robust and fully featured software. The solution? Rewrite! The company moved to a different city, but left behind the original software - to live in its own filth.
Dungeon Upkeep Keeping the software maintained to a point people could still use it was the job of a fellow I only met once when I was being interviewed (for an unrelated position!) so I can't tell you any juicy stories about them either. However, I can tell you the software essence remained the same. They continued to use the original UNIX compiler and coding techniques. These techniques include typedefs to normal C keywords and functions. Numerous programs that simply copy & paste code from other programs. Global pointers ruled the entire source code base from top to bottom. Return values were rarely checked. Instead of calling the standard rename or delete functions, system calls were made to the operating system's shell tools. The source control system involved cloning the main source directory per release - some of which I did not find when I took over. Take this scenario for instance: One customer was given a compiled program on Monday but changes would be made to the same program and given to a different customer on Tuesday. Every customer had a unique compiled version of the software. Let that settle in your mind for a moment.
Change of Hands A friend of mine, who has moved on to greener pastures, took over a few years ago. He began a very important and rigorous job of evolving the software into a state that a guy off the street could come in and program to. The code went from 1980s leftovers to 1990s l33tsauce. It was now source controlled in CVS and macros were removed. Some of the copied code were moved into libraries that were compiled against. A small set back to the improvements happened when another programmer was hired and began transforming perfectly good code into obfuscated and over coded code. String pointers were turned into "static const char *const variable;" nightmares. Functions were rewritten to be twice as long and contained bugs that I had to find and fix for about a year.
Modern Tools After I took over we released a major version. This version was the first version where all of the software was released in one update. It was all source controlled, and I implemented a sane update system that insured customers would all be on the same software level. Lately we've moved the code into git and I have been loving every minute of it. The software is slowly emerging from its colorful past.
Over the Rainbow GUI, SQL, Cross-platform. These three words are the embodiment of the future of the company. If I get a chance to finish the project, it should provide the company and its customers with a fresh breath of life.